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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Tickled by tickets

My aunt was in Chennai for a couple of days, so when she returned last night I went to pick her up from the railway station. Now, the railways have always fascinated me for some reason or the other. When I was a child, or should I say younger than I am now, it was because the sheer marvel of massive machinery as it slowly moved by me to a staccato rhythm allowed my flowering imagination to run riot. Then, as I grew older, my interest shifted to how amazingly long it took for me to stand in line and get a ticket...if at all I was lucky to do so before the guy closed the counter, pointed randomly to his right or left, and got up for lunch, or another tea break.

But this time around, it's been because of all the changes that have been happening to the Indian Railways. For one thing, and I know people have mixed opinions about him as a person, most of these changes have happened after Lalu Prasad Yadav became the Railway Minister a couple of years ago. Now, there are court cases against him, and his dubious character has been dealt many a blow by the media, but no one can refute the forward motion of his reforms, in terms of the railways of course. Here are a couple of articles that show how he's focusing on both the freight and the passenger sides of the railway equation. And, it's all good. In fact, come to think of it, it's been ages since I've traveled by train, and I'm just itching to go somewhere now...what with all the improvements.

Now, all these changes are on a macro level, which is my way of saying that at the end of the day one still has to go through politely refusing beggars who get on the train at every station, while having to keep an eye and an ear open for the multitudinous sea of vendors who sell anything from tea and coffee to magazines and assorted snacks. That's part of the train experience, and for whatever reason I've been missing it for a while. But back to the story, so to speak.

One of the first changes that I noticed, albeit sometime last year, was the introduction of the platform ticket vending machine. A platform ticket, for those of you wondering if it's anything akin to platform shoes, is a ticket that allows visitors to get on to the platform and either drop or receive passengers. It's pretty cool because unlike airports where several levels of security exist, and where therefore, it is impossible to let anybody inside, let alone up to the aircraft, once you're on the platform you're right in the action zone. You can see the train moseying into the station, and if you really wanted to you can go up and touch it...although as a child I was warned beyond a reasonable doubt about coming into physical contact with any part of the railway car, or bogie as we call it. But yeah, the platform ticket of yesteryear had to be gotten in the same manner as a train ticket, and that meant standing in line for the rest of your natural life, or incurring the wrath of the ticket collector when you tried to leave the scene. So, in retrospect, the vending machine was a welcome sight. Here's a ticket for you to look at.

Uh, the "Bangalore Cantt" stands for Bangalore Cantonment station, one of the five stations in this city.

And now for the other side of the story. Each ticket costs three rupees, which isn't much money at all...not compared to airports and stuff where you pay more than 50 rupees just to step inside. However, the problem lies in having the exact amount of change with you, which would be a lot easier if the machine were able to do simple math and figure out that three one-rupee coins were the same as one one-rupee coin and one two-rupee coin. So, that means if you have the second combination of "small change" you have to run around and try and get the two-rupee coin split into smaller units. Not an easy task when most shopkeepers turn you away with a, "Sorry, no change" accompanied by the infamous Indian shoulder-shrug. Does that mean if I needed two or more tickets I'd have to hope to God to be carrying six, or more, one-rupee coins? Nope, if I needed two tickets all I'd have to do is insert a one-rupee coin and a five-rupee coin, one after the other and in whatever order I felt like. He he he. Convenience of machinery anyone? Or inane security feature? You know, just in case three suspicious-looking fellows wanted to do some mischief on the platform and they happened to discover that none of them had a one-rupee coin on them. Oh well, we take what we can get, eh?

Other changes have been, or maybe I should say had been the use of earthenware cups to be used in the sale of beverages such as tea and coffee. Why? For this allowed people to throw a cup out of their window, once they were done using it of course, without having to feel guilty that they'd done so. As far as I know, this change has been reversed. But like I said before, for the most part, the macro changes are a definite step in the right direction. I mean, quite simply, Mr. Yadav has taken on the now booming domestic airline sector by positioning the Indian Railways as a truly "alternative" mode of transport. Good on you sir.

The second ticket that I was tickled about was the parking fee ticket at the parking lot outside. Firstly, it's more of a once-upon-a-time-kids-used-to-play-here kind of a ground than a parking lot. Then, contrary to the fancy, multi-level parking lots people may be accustomed to seeing elsewhere in the world, there is no entry gate with a little machine that spits out a ticket when you enter. Nope, there's just some dude who happens to stand around and focus on the vehicles trying to slip away without paying. Not that there's anything wrong with this, but it makes the whole pay-for-your-parking thing seem that much more of a case of daylight robbery than it usually is. Or is it? Take a look at the ticket and decide for yourselves.

Now that you've seen the exhibit, and as unnerving as it can be to see the word "Surrender" with a captial 's', you will also notice that there is not a shred of any effort having been made to write down the "Vehicle No.", or the "Date" for that matter. In fact, if I was supposed to "Please Surrender the Coupon before leaving," what am I still doing with it?

Again, we'll take what we can get, right? He he he... However, I still can't shake the whole making-progress-in-half-measures thing. Or should I say half-assed measures? Oh well, all in good time? Or was it "It's all good"?

Well, before I go here are a couple of links of interest, should you choose to look into the Indian Railways any further...or should you choose to be otherwise interested:

1) The Indian Railways Fan Club
2) The Unofficial Indian Railways Website
3) The Indian Railways Reservation Enquiry
4) Train Running Information
5) The Indian Railways Institute of Electrical Engineering
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